Museum gift fills out Lincoln family's story
The documents offer a new layer of understanding to the 16th president's often-overshadowed descendants, museum officials said Saturday.
More than 70 documents belonging to Abraham Lincoln's family have joined the collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, officials there said.
The documents, donated by the widow of a former state curator of Lincoln artifacts, offer a new layer of understanding to the 16th president's often-overshadowed descendants, museum officials said Saturday.
"It's a panorama of about 70 or 80 years worth of people in the Lincoln family," said James Cornelius, Lincoln curator at the Springfield library and museum. "All these things add a little more color to the lives of this family."
The collection consists mostly of letters, none of which came directly from Lincoln or his wife, Cornelius said, but several were penned by the couple's eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln.
Lincoln's grandchildren and great-grandchildren wrote others, Cornelius said.
The collection belonged to Jim Hickey, Cornelius said, who served as curator of the Lincoln collection at the state historical library prior to its move to the Lincoln library and museum.
Most of the collection was likely acquired by Hickey through his longtime friendship with Lincoln's great-grandson and last direct descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith.
"He gave (Hickey) most of these things as little samples of the history of his family, which 50 years ago maybe didn't seem all that valuable or important," Cornelius said.
Perhaps the most interesting piece, in Cornelius' mind, is a letter from 1891, from Robert Todd Lincoln — then U.S. minister to Great Britain — to Bertha Rickoff. An American, Rickoff had solicited his advice on gaining an introduction for herself and her daughter to the court of Queen Victoria.
Apparently Rickoff sought a member of the court as a potential suitor for her daughter, Cornelius said, and wanted Lincoln's son to help navigate royal rules and decorum.
"It's an amazing piece of personal diplomatic and legal assistance by our minister," Cornelius said. "He was successful," Cornelius said of Robert Todd Lincoln's efforts to arrange the introduction. Whether it resulted in nuptials is unknown, he added.
In another letter penned years later, a nearly retired Robert Todd Lincoln reminisced with a friend and fellow Harvard University graduate about playing the banjo.
"We didn't know Robert had any musical inclinations at all," Cornelius said. "I doubt he was very good, but he gave it a try."
As the president and Mary Todd Lincoln's only child to survive into adulthood, Robert Todd Lincoln briefly served in the Union army, became a lawyer, held the post of U.S. secretary of war under Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur and later became president of Chicago's Pullman Car Co.
Other family memorabilia in the new collection include a letter from Robert Todd Lincoln's wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln; a copy of an 1858 Lincoln speech signed by Beckwith; a brief 1823 letter from Lincoln's father-in-law, Robert Todd; and three poems penned in the 1920s by Lincoln's great-granddaughter, Peggy Beckwith.
In one bit of non-Lincoln material, Hickey's donation contains a 1786 letter to the governor of Georgia from Patrick Henry, the well-known lawyer and politician who helped rally America toward independence from Great Britain with his fiery rhetoric — including the famed words, "Give me liberty, or give me death."
Hickey's widow donated the collection about six months ago, Cornelius said. It has since been examined and cataloged and is available for research at the library. A few of the pieces could end up on display at the museum, he said.
"We are grateful to Betty Hickey," Cornelius said. "She could have sold these for a lot of money, but she was generous the way her husband was."
|The Abraham Lincoln family in 1861, painted by F.B. Carpenter and engraved by J.C. Buttre. (Library of Congress / January 23, 2013)